Anthropology’s Symbiotic Relationship with Photogr

Anthropology 174
It is by no coincidence that the fields of photography and
anthropology have evolved together. At the very least, photography and the
visual representation of so-called “primitive” peoples have legitimized and
mainstreamed the field of anthropology. Anthropologists have been called
“merchants of the exotic,” a reputation well deserved based on the early
period of ethnographic photography. In many cases anthropologists have been
aware of this reputation and exploited it, to promote interest in their
work. In many other cases however anthropologists have had a genuine
interest in promoting enlightenment and understanding of nonwestern
cultures, yet have still missed the mark and spread stigma and stereotype
instead. Photography and visual representation is a very powerful medium
(in both productive and destructive ways) which probably was not fully
appreciated at its inception, but is perhaps more understandable in

The first photographs were modeled after the two modes of painting
(portraiture and landscape, or “scenes”), which were the only other form of
two-dimensional visual representation at the time. This can be seen in the
early ethnographic photos of Rudolph Poch, who posed his subjects in
various positions and stood in the midst of them looking far off into the
distance (probably thinking himself a very great man).

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As the field of photography progressed, and photographers began to
discover new uses and possibilities of photography (i.e. other than just
really realistic-looking paintings), the medium developed new meaning, and
attracted new interests. Of these new interests anthropologists too
discovered photography as a tool for a wider range of uses.

Elizabeth Edwards, summarizing Rochelle Kolodny outlines three
functions of photography underlying its use today. The first is
romanticism, which is based on the tradition of painting and art.

Romanticism is concerned with aesthetics, and a romantically modeled
photograph would be one in which it is clear that the photograph was taken
because either the subject was aesthetically pleasing, or something about
the way the frame was arranged was aesthetically pleasing. Under the
romantic model, since the purpose is to end up with a good-looking picture,
the photographer has a role in structuring and posing the subjects in the
frame. Second, there is realism, which is the mode of photography in which
the photographer’s intent is to record facts. In this mode the photographer
tries to capture a real situation, photographs are not posed, or it is
clear that the photograph was taken to record the realistic characteristics
of a subject. Lastly, the documentary model (which can include elements of
the above two) is operating when the photographer’s intent is to make some
sort of statement about the subject, either a social or political

Normally when we view photographs we view them without criticism. We
see a picture and assume it is what it is. To different people a picture
may have different meaning, depending on culture, experience or background
knowledge, and a picture’s meaning may change over time as its viewers age
or it is viewed by different generations with different values. This is the
passive quality of photography that Edwards points out in her introductory
chapter. But she also suggests that photography has an assertive quality;
photographs can be structured in a way to convey a certain meaning. In
addition to the three models that Edwards presents, she says that each can
be broken down into four, what she calls “facets.” The facets are really
questions that can be asked about the pictures, the answers to which speak
volumes about the photographer, a party to the photograph who usually
remains unscrutinized.

The facets are, first, the assumptions about the nature of the world
as defined by the role of the images. Second, the aspects of the creating
culture to which the images connect. Third, the ideological frameworks
which the images uphold, and lastly, the function of each model or

Consider the photograph of a Motu girl paddling a canoe (p. 162 in
Edwards’ book). The photograph, which was probably posed, was done in the
romantic mode of photography, because the primary purpose of the
photographer was not to convey facts of native life or native culture
(realism), nor does there seem to be much of a social or political
statement that this photograph is making. The photographer’s intent seems
pretty clearly to be to capture this girl’s beauty and grace as she paddles
down the river. She is looking right into the camera as she paddles,
something she probably wouldn’t be doing had the photograph been taken
spontaneously, or if she really were busily paddling away.

Applying the four facets of the romantic model allows us to ask
questions of the photographer. Edwards suggests that the romantic model of
photography is based on the ideological framework of idealism (the third
facet) and that the function of this framework is redemptive (the fourth
facet). This leaves the question of the first two facets, that is, what are
the assumptions about the nature of the world as defined by the role of the
image, and which aspects of the creating culture does the photograph
connect to? To answer the last question, the aspects of the creating
culture that the photograph connect to is fairly obvious; the picture is
modeled after European paintings. If the woman had had blonde hair, fair
skin and less tattoos she would be indistinguishable from subjects of many
other romantic paintings done the century before. The connection is that
this woman is made to looks like a variation of a western ideal of beauty,
which serves to redeem her (from being “savage?”) in the eyes of
westerners. Furthermore, keeping in mind the framework (idealism), its
function (redemption) and the connection (western ideals of beauty), it can
be further deduced from the photo that that the photographer holds certain
assumptions about the nature of the world. Namely, that this woman and her
culture need redeeming at all.

Photography has tremendous power, in part for the reason mentioned
above: because we now frequently assume a realistic model, people rarely
question the structure of photographs. They are after all supposed to be
accurate portrayals of whatever the camera is pointed at. However
photographs are intentionally structured and can be structured to portray
what the photographer intends. Ethnographic photography especially then has
serious moral implications, outcomes of which could determine the survival
or independence of an entire culture.

Photography during the early period of anthropology was often abused
as a method of displaying the exotic, or making native peoples appear
silly, unintelligent or fierce (see p. 13, plate 7 of Edwards’ book). I
believe anthropologists should be wary in general of posed pictures in
anthropology, since the doctrine of anthropology is primarily to observe,
not to create.

Photography has a number of other constructive roles in anthropology
besides the illustration of native people and cultures for western eyes.

Photography in modern anthropology has evolved into a research tool itself.

There are three phases of ethnographic inquiry, as outlined by John
Collier, Jr. and Malcolm Collier. First there is the introductory phase, or
orientation. After an anthropologist has been introduced to and oriented
with the community under study s/he can move into in-depth fieldwork and
narrow her scope to the goals of the research (which is the second phase).

Finally when she feels she has gathered sufficient data, she’ll synthesize
her findings into an article or ethnography. Photography has an important
role in each of the three phases of research..

In the first phase an anthropologist or ethnographer usually has just
arrived in the community to be studied. At a time when the anthropologist
is totally unfamiliar with her surroundings taking pictures gives her
something productive to do. The first images of her surroundings at this
point have no pertinent meaning to her. As Collier and Collier put it, the
initial photographs are the first step toward learning “. . . the visual
language of a new cultural ecology.” (p. 20) These initial photographs
will not only help to orient the anthropologist but will also be useful in
later stages of the research.

Photographing the land surrounding the community and the exterior of
the village is also important in the early stages of research. For one, it
aides the researcher in learning more quickly how to get around, as a kind
of photographic map. In addition these photographs provide context to the
research. Later they can be studied to deduce important knowledge about the
people, such as how they make use of their land, what their farming
techniques are , whether they produce crops or livestock, how they organize
their village and what the hierarchy is ( if there is one). Napoleon
Chagnon for example, in his study of the Yanamama was interested in
horticultural land use and the rotation of their gardens. He stood on a
hill top and took survey pictures of the surrounding land to document the

If one has access to it, aerial photography can reveal even more about
a community, including the community’s relationship to nearby villages, a
more accurate survey of land use, nearby natural resources and roads, which
can be evidence of trading patterns.

Photography has its greatest utilitarian value in the second phase of
ethnographic inquiry. In the spirit of realism, photography can aide an
ethnographer in making a cultural inventory of the physical items in a
culture. An inventory with still photography can capture so much more than
written notes or even moving pictures. When taking notes an anthropologist
will write down only the things notable to her/him at that time. If the
anthropologist is still at a fairly early stage in the research she may
miss things, or the absence of things that have yet to become significant
to her. In addition, it is tedious work writing down and describing
everything you see. A photograph captures the image of what’s in the room
almost perfectly, and allows the eye to roam each corner of the frame,
catching all the background details, without the objects moving or
distracting activity. From a cultural inventory a myriad of questions can
be asked and answered of the people, such as: What is kept inside the
house? Are the objects utilitarian or aesthetic in nature? Examining
objects that are valued enough to keep around can lend insight into value
systems themselves. An anthropologist might also examine where things
inside the house are placed in relation to each other. This may provide
some insight into how the people organize and categorize things and
activities in their minds.

Still photography images of technology are useful, perhaps were more
useful before the advent of moving image. Because technology and tools may
be tedious to describe, and also because technology is only meaningful in
use and in relationship to a user, visual images of a foreign technology
are indispensable to its understanding. One limitation to still photographs
of foreign technology is obvious: the viewer can’t see the technology in

In his chapter on interviewing informants with photographs, Collier
asserts that the photo-interview and projective interpretation by the
native is perhaps the best use of the camera in the field of anthropology
and the only way to truly exploit its full record.

In the first place a photograph can serve as an icebreaker in the
community (or “can-opener”) and in relationships with informants; they may
feel honored that you chose to photograph them or something they’re proud
of, or you may be able to use photographs of them and the community (taken
during the slow days of phase one) to strike up conversations. In an
interview with photographs the photos can serve as starting points and
reference points of the conversation, giving the anthropologist the power
to guide the interview (she chooses which ones to bring) without having to
be verbally assertive. The interview is less of an interrogation and more
of a conversation.

In the final phase of ethnographic study, conclusion and synthesis,
photos serve as illustrations and provide visual context. There have been
attempts to use photography as a primary research tool, an effort called
“saturated photography,” But these efforts in the end have not come to
much, primarily for the same reason that photographs are so useful in
interviews. That is, it takes another medium, such as spoken word or text,
to convey the meaning and intent of the visual representation; the
interpretation of visual media varies with culture and value systems and so
without some sort of guided interpretation via another medium, purely
visual interpretation is mere speculation.

Photography then has had a huge impact on anthropology; without it, one
could speculate the field may not even exist, or not to the extent that it
does today. Photographs give anthropologists a tremendous amount of power,
which they are expected to exercise wisely and morally. But anthropology
does not stand on photography alone, and without written word and film, the
anthropological body of knowledge would not be as rich as it is today.